Zoom Theatre and Working with Post Workers Theatre

Since September I have been working with Post Workers Theatre and Infinite Opera to develop a performance based on the East Kent custom of Hoodening. Hoodening 

Hoodening itself had lots of similarities to the welsh tradition of Mari Lwyd and the Mummer’s play. In fact many ancient traditions bear similarities e.g. St Augustine in the 5th century condemned the ‘filthy practice of dressing up like a horse or stag’ in the 5th century’ and later that Scottish ecclesiastical authorities forbade ‘any man from dressing as a horse or wild beast and dancing widdershins in the Kalends of January, for this is devilish’’

What is it?

  •  A short play toured around houses, festivities and pubs in the 4 days leading up to Christmas. Key themes are always death and resurrection, beer and collecting money for charity.
  • Original story based on 19th century ploughing team. Often now includes contemporary references.
  • Named hoodening due to the use of a hood to create the character of the Hooded Horse. This horse is exhausted from the long hours and hard labour enforced by the boss.
    • Other characters: The waggoner – carries a top hat and keeps everyone in line.
    • Molly – a soft hearted woman past her prime
    • Sam – the lazy, mean and smelly farm labourer
    • Boy – young and reckless
    • Musician – Normally quite stupid, sometimes wears pyjamas and helps everyone sing carols at the end (or special “Hoodening songs”).
    • http://hoodening.org.uk/

Objectives:

  • The purpose of this project was to find a way to create an updated and contemporary version of the Hoodening custom.
  • Keep the important themes of embittered workers, death and resurrection, and ultimately worker’s demands – to use the work as a protest which could be performed during the Christmas shopping period in the Black Friday weekend.
  • The use of worker’s plight brought in links to other historical characters that might be used, specifically Captain Swing of the English Swing Riots in 1830. Captain Swing was used as the name under which rioters appended their letters when contesting the introduction of threshing machines. These new machines meant lost livelihoods for many workers. We can see history being reflected today in the use of AI to control the way that amazon workers carry out their jobs.

Post Workers Theatre had been working since November 2019 on the subject of the growing body of complaints from Amazon factory workers. These “Fulfillment centres” are rife with poor working practice and disgruntled employees. In Christmas 2019 they produced Autohoodening part 1 with the MA Design Students at Goldsmiths. I had helped to generate some elements of this performance such as the songs and the movement. During 2020 Post Workers Theatre were in contact with the unions fighting for workers rights within the UK. This partnership, and the quotes and information gathered from there, enabled us to start working on Autohoodening Part 2. 

In Autohoodening Part 1, Post Workers Theatre had created the characters: Alexis – the evil scanner, Molly – the molly bot, Dave – the technician, several Pickers and Packers, and the Line Manager. After creating this piece the character of Captain Swing was added to replace Dave the technician.

The costume maker and Artist James Frost was also enlisted as part of the team. His costume design really helped to solidify the concept of the characters and bring a strong sense of identity to the piece.

In the first meeting with PWT and the cast from Infinite Opera (online) we discussed the different characters, what they could represent and how each of the participants felt about them. We had initially wished to devise a lot through improvisation however the COVID restrictions meant we were limited to online discussions. We did however attempt some improvised conversations between characters on Zoom. The outcome of this rehearsal was a greater sense of who these characters were and what events needed to occur in the piece. From there we developed the initial plot :

  • The piece is signposted by the three punishments, reflecting the three strike amazon system.
  • Several different types of “death and resurrution” occur (Swing, the Line Manager, Molly and Alexis).
  • Includes traditional Hoodening structure of character introductions and hoodening songs.
  • See images below.

The script was written jointly between Infinite Opera and Post WorkersTheatre, with the addition of some elements being created by the performers themselves.

  • As mentioned before the initial plan was to make use of improvisation in the devising process with the performers, to fully embody the characters and allow for a fun and dynamic use of the plot. However COVID meant we could not meet and we found that online platforms such as Zoom did not work well for generating nuanced interactions between performers. So we decided to mostly script the piece.
  • We did however leave some spaces for the performers to express the characters themselves. For example each character introduces themselves. We asked the cast to write this personal introduction in rhyming couplets. We also found that Hannah, who plays the Molly Bot, was particularly good at improvising cheeky Alexa style one or two liners, and so left a lot of her text to improvisation. This worked well for that character as they did not need to interact with another character whilst doing this.
  • The rest was jointly scripted (by splitting up the sections and assigning them to different people) and jointly edited.
    • It is mostly in rhyming couplets as is the traditional Hoodening plays, only breaking this to add drama to the text.
    • Specific elements of working at amazon needed to be made clear within the script: poor health and safety, lack of adequate breaks or rest – called Time Off Task, injury, the use of an algorithm to monitor people and threaten them with warnings, disciplinary proceedings.
    • Another key element is the worker’s complaints. These were taken from transcriptions by the Union GMB who are fighting for amazon worker’s rights. These are used in the script in an unabridged manner to fully respect the experience of these workers.
  • We rehearsed the script as it was written which helped us even more to edit and create a piece that fully integrated both our, the real workers, and the cast’s vision of the characters and the story.

Before Christmas we decided to focus on making a trailer for the longer piece which will be a film made at some point during 2021. We still wish to film the piece on location so must wait for the restrictions to be lifted. In order to make this trailer we took some inspiration from the work of the Brazilian theatre company Os Satyros, who have been working on how to create Zoom Theatre. In particular we were inspired by the joint work of Os Satyros and Aleksandar Dundjerovic in the Macbeth Projeto. The elements we borrowed were to have sections of people talking to each other through the camera, to devise some choreography through zoom, and to use backdrops and filters on the screen. As we were making a trailer however it was possible for us to include some editing so we also added edited elements into the video. This enabled us to have 9 people on screen (making use of the grid). One of the team had to direct so this person was on screen to keep the grid format but a video of them was edited in afterwards. There are also some animations and effects to keep the trailer engaging.

Find the trailer here

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